Start-up company executes its founder’s visions of success.
When John Cosgrove began in the storage and handling business 27 years ago, the methods of sales training were a little different than they are today. Cosgrove was 23 years old when he started working as a salesperson for a small storage and handling company. “I was given a case full of catalogs and told to go knock on doors and find customers,” he says. He did find some loyal customers, and since that start, Cosgrove has become a pillar in both the industry and the community.
Within three years, Cosgrove was named vice president of sales at that company, a position he would hold for 12 years. He next joined a systems integrator, serving as its vice president of sales for 13 years. In 2005, he started his own company, Atlantic Handling Systems, based in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, just across the river from New York City. In 2007, he will serve MHEDA as the association’s 53rd president.
Atlantic Handling Systems was created, Cosgrove says, “to provide high value in the marketplace by designing, selling, installing and servicing conveyor and storage systems.” Cosgrove has spent the last two years tapping the relationships with the aforementioned loyal customers that he has developed over his 27-year material handling sales career in the region. The strong alliances were a major boon while trying to grow the new company.
In order to spread the word, Cosgrove developed a creative marketing plan. “When you don’t have any customers, you do anything you can to brand your name in the marketplace. Luckily, I know the territory and the people with whom we need to move,” he explains. Cosgrove has made the circuit of local Chambers of Commerce and networking groups to generate buzz. Atlantic Handling Systems also sent out a capabilities brochure to prospective customers. The leaflet was placed in a coffee mug, which was in turn placed, along with a pound of Dunkin Donuts coffee, inside a sack ornamented with pictures of money. Attached was a note reading, “Thanks a million from Atlantic Handling Systems.”
Part of the start-up strategy also included targeting companies in markets where Cosgrove believed the company would thrive. “Pharmaceuticals are very big here in New Jersey, as are health and beauty aids and defense contractors,” states Cosgrove. In fact, the company’s first large job in April 2005 was a print-and-apply system for a health and beauty company. Atlantic Handling Systems increased the customer’s ability to label its cases and reduced the manual labor necessary to complete the process. The customer was thrilled, and that really was the breakthrough sale for Atlantic Handling Systems. “We did a lot of hard work to be able to provide sales, installation, service and design engineering. Completing that first major system gave us the foundation to grow our business into even larger systems,” Cosgrove says.
Growing the Culture
“The biggest challenge when you start a business is selecting the right people,” says Cosgrove, who started the company with just himself and one engineer. They worked under the basic credo, “You design it and I’ll get them to order it.” The company since has been adding people virtually from the moment it opened its doors. Now, there are several employees, including engineers, salespeople, installers, human resources, accounting and Cosgrove. “I’ve known most of them from previous employment, and they all have a vision to sustain our growth and give us the stability we need to take our business to the next level.”
Each individual is carefully selected to make sure they will fit a certain set of traits. “We want someone who is highly motivated and wants to provide solutions to customer problems. We want can-do people with high integrity.” Cosgrove also looks for individuals who show they care about and want to help the community. “If you have the right people, they can achieve great things.”
Cosgrove is a big proponent of employee empowerment. “Over the years, I’ve learned that the president of a company needs to provide people with the tools to be successful and then let them go out and do it. You must have people work with you and not for you,” he says. “It makes a big difference when everyone is part of a team moving inthe same direction and they’re able to voice their opinions. People really feel good when they feel that what they have to say matters.”
Another key element of Atlantic Handling Systems’ corporate culture is providing a comfortable working environment. “Some people want everyone to report to the office every day to make sure they’re working, but I can tell who is doing their job based on the goals that are achieved,” Cosgrove explains. For that reason, he allows salespeople to work out of their homes. “Why should I make someone drive an hour into the office and an hour back when I can create a culture where they can use those two hours to be more effective and still be successful?”
Others do come into the Ho-Ho-Kus office, a relatively small 1,200 sq. ft. building used primarily for the company’s engineering and marketing functions. The location allows the company to cover a territory of northern New Jersey and the New York City metropolitan area. “We also have the ability to do jobs out of state,” Cosgrove says. “I have used my MHEDA resources to find other dealers who can help us with installation and service.”
Setting the Stage for the Future
For the most part, though, the company confines itself to the “organized chaos” of the fast-paced New York City market. “It’s a changing venue. When I started in this industry, most of the customers in a territory were manufacturers.” Now, however, much manufacturing has left New Jersey, with the exception of pharmaceuticals, health and beauty aids, and other niche industries. Accor-ding to Cosgrove, the state is now a distribution mecca, thanks to the loads of offshore goods that come into the ports and are sent to warehouses for distribution.
To those distribution and manufacturing customers, Atlantic Handling Systems sells a variety of products, including conveyor, racking, shelving, modular offices and warehouse management systems. “We provide a lot of service for a small company. What we’re really trying to achieve is customers for life,” Cosgrove says. “When we sell a system, we don’t leave it. We do preventive maintenance. We do emergency service. We’re always somewhere close at hand to help the customer through difficulty. We don’t have a sales cycle where we sell something and then five years later they call us. We have constant interaction with our customers.”
The company has already come a long way in two years. The next few years should be exciting for Cosgrove, who would like to continue to develop the company’s service capabilities while maintaining sales growth and continuing to nurture current customers. “We must keep a handle on it and make sure we don’t overextend,” he says.
This is one example of the many lessons Cosgrove has gained in his lengthy career in material handling. Now it’s his time to take those lessons and apply them at his own company. “After 27 years, I have an opportunity to pursue my vision and build an organization the way I think it should be done.”